Can we talk less please?

[As a rule, i do not pass opinions or write on politics and religion. Therefore, i must state that what follows is not about politics -- nor is it an expression of a personal political preference.] 

A couple of days ago, an elected representative from a bastion of democracy spoke of ”consensual rape” during a talk in the floor of the State House. i am not sure what that phrase means. The lawmaker, of course, later tried to wiggle out by stating that he missed adding an ”or”* between consensual and rape. I still do not get it — owing, probably, to a lack of skill in obfuscation. 

In Donald Davidson and the Mirror of Meaning: Holism, Truth, Interpretation, J E Malpas' book on the ideas of the philosopher and linguist, we have a view of "the principle of charity" from Donald. "To see too much unreason on the part of others is simply to undermine our ability to understand what it is they are so unreasonable about."*_ Donald suggests that, In dialogue, we suppress our tendency to assume that the other is stupid and senseless -- and seek to find the other's meaning. If we do not do this, we are likely to fail in understanding the other. This is a profound idea -- one that is essential to working our way past problems that divide us.

i have applied this Principle of Charity when i watched the politician backing the near total ban on abortion in Missouri. i have not succeeded so far in my attempts to understand him. However, one thing keeps running through my mind -- it would have been so much better if he had kept mum.

In this and so many other instances, i find that the tongue is increasingly getting thoughtless, and violent. The idea that freedom of expression is sacred has led us to a point where speech often runs miles ahead of the thinking that should shape it. We appear to have become a society of talkers. It is talk, talk everywhere -- with shockingly little thought. This is so because, as Madelyn Burley-Allen points out ( In Listening: The Forgotten Skill),  "we have equated speaking with mastery and power." 

i see three major consequences of this. 

The first is that, despite tremendous advances in knowledge, we are also creating a world (i borrow words from the course Calling Bullshit conducted by University of Washington academics Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin West) ”with a blatant disregard for truth and logical coherence."

The second consequence is a world where listening becomes something that people attend trainings on but, find painful to practise. After all, what does one listen to when it is mostly bullshit and vitriolic noise going around. Some of us even find it necessary to attend silent retreats. We pay for places that will keep the prattle away. Ultimately, fatigued by incessant chatter, we become less vigilant. 

A third consequence is a diminishing of empathy. Full of our words, we care less and less about others. In everyday life, decency becomes a causality.

The Greek poet Hesiod wrote (Works and Days) that "the best treasure among people is that of a thrifty tongue."*_  Centuries later, Swami Ranganathananda touches on this in his commentary on Verse 12.19 of the Bhagavad Gita (Universal Message of the Bhagavad Gita). The wisest people, he says, are ”maunis” -- "A mauni is a 'thinking person'; naturally, he or she speaks less."

In his address (21st January 2019), on receiving the World Economic Forum’s Crystal Prize, David Attenborough told the world that ”The Garden of Eden is no more.” Cautioning us against slipping into paralytic gloom, he also said that we have ”a vast potential” to make healthy differences that will last thousands of years. 

As society, we face challenges, the kinds of which no civilisation before us has faced. If we are to solve these and make the planet better for our children, we can only do so in communion with other individuals. This requires that we shed our intoxication with speaking, and spend more time listening, thinking, learning and acting — in empathy with all life.  

The important of Baloney Detection

In Figuring, Maria Popova asks — ”How does a person come into self-posession and sovereignty of mind against the tide of convention and unreasoning collectivism?”

The ”sovereignty of mind” that Maria speaks about is not a brash self-assertion that cocks a snook at parents, habits from the past, and the Establishment  It is living completely in accordance with the ”Baloney Detection Kit.”

In The Demon-Haunted World — Science as a Candle in the Dark, the wise Carl Sagan devotes a chapter to the ”The Fine Art of Baloney Detection.” 

The Kit that Carl proposes to help us smell fallaciousness and fraud consists of the following --

  • Confirm facts independently (as much as possible).

  • Dialogue with knowledgeable people from differing points of view.

  • Do not get swayed by authority.

  • Think up different hypothesis.

  • Do not back any view owing to personal attachment to ideas. In other words, it is important to introspect and examine oneself for biases, prejudices, and preferences.

  • Whenever possible, quantify.

  • Examine every link the argument-chain for weakness. Every link must hold up.

  • When faced with multiple plausible hypothesis, pick the one that explains with the most simplicity.

  • Propositions must be falsifiable. In other words, propositions must be testable. 

We would do well to keep in mind that our Brain is not a dispassionate, passive computer  David Eagleman concludes a chapter titled “What is Reality?” (The Brain — The Story of You) writing —  “Your brain serves up a narrative — and each of us believes whatever narrative it tells us....Even more strangely, it’s likely that every brain tells a slightly different narrative....Each brain carries its own truth.” The Brain, while incredibly useful, is not completely reliable in Baloney Detection. Baloney Detection is not an innate cranial trait, but a temper of mind that must be assiduously cultivated. 

Friedrich Nietzsche writes (The Philosopher: Reflections on the Struggle Between Art and Knowledge) that ”life requires illusions”.  Carl, with immense compassion, acknowledges that we are ”human”. Many of us need Santa Claus explanations to live. Having said this, he encourages us to ”rouse reserves” to combat Baloney because it is often created "collaboratively....with....premediation" to deceive, profit, and acquire power over people. When the Kit is not used and we drop our guard, Carl cautions, sometimes we find that “gullibility kills".

i am unlikely to be challenged when i say that Carl spent his lifetime helping us acquire ”sovereignty of mind”

i am thinking of Carl and Maria right now. i am grateful that they are my Teachers. 

Dirty Harry, John Gray, and Self-Deception

The thug shoots around and kills a few, hurts many, and terrorises everyone. As he stands gloating, the smoke clears and in a corner sits Clint. ”I know what you're thinking, punk. You’re thinking "Did he fire six shots or only five?" Well to tell you the truth in all this excitement I kinda lost track myself. But being this is a .44 Magnum, the most powerful handgun in the world and would blow your head clean off, you've gotta ask yourself one question: "Do I feel lucky?" Well, do ya, punk?....Go ahead, make my day.”  (dialogues from Dirty Harry and Sudden Impact)

Something similar happens in my mind when i read John Gray — the Professor who taught at Oxford, Yale, Harvard, and retired after a stint at the  London School of Economics. The proponents of liberalism, the destroyers of gods, the champions of free speech and all that — Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, and similar thinkers stand alone having swatted away many — the smoke clears and John turns up saying ”Go ahead, make my day.” 

Described as a misanthrope-thinker by some, John marshals an array of arguments that, to the unprepared, can cause panic. In Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals, he gets to the heart of the matter early by pointing out that ”belief in progress is a superstition.” Instinctively, this may seem like a thoughtless statement, but i have not come across convincing refutations of John’s ideas.

In a 2013 conversation with Johannes Niederhauser, John Gray touches on self-deception.” Speaking about a former Prime Minister of the U.K, he says — ”People regard him as a liar, but I believe that's too much of a compliment. I think he lacks the moral development to engage in falsity. Whatever he spoke, he believed.”  i think this lies at the heart of much of John Gray’s intellectual positions — the idea that we are prone to self-deception. And as we give more room to this, our lives become a large-scale delusion — we end up becoming numb inside, stop thinking and, at best, become passive time-servers. At worst, we become tyrants — at home, at work, in society. John, i think, will agree with Charles Dickens (Great Expectations) that ”all other swindlers upon the earth are nothing to the self-swindler.” 

Self-deception encourages us to live in echo-chambers, makes us deaf to everything except our own ideas, makes us spin fantasies that masquerade as facts, and prevents learning.

This is why Ramakrishna Paramahamsa cautioned that we would do well to not indulge in ”theft in the heart.”  And Somerset Maugham observed in The Painted Veil that ”it is always despicable to lie to oneself.”

i am thinking of self-deception this morning — the need for me to ”protect this mind of mine” (Shantideva in The Way of the Bodhisattva) .